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Should you really take Tamiflu if you get the flu?

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

What you should do ASAP when you feel the flu coming on

For something so common that it even has its own season — like Christmas or football (Seriously, what other illness practically gets its own holiday?) — you'd think we'd all be used to the flu by now. But, thanks to the unlucky combination of a more virulent-than-usual flu strain and a less-effective-than-usual flu vaccine, the influenza is worse than usual.

As more and more people get sick, they are wondering what they can do to feel better as quickly as possible. Antiviral medications are one option, but people worry about taking one more pill. So, should you take Tamiflu?

I remember well the last time I got the flu and it was no small thing. Still, I didn't go to my doctor and didn't ask for any medication. I am a generally healthy young adult with a robust immune system built for this kind of thing, right? Even though I ate enough chicken soup and OJ to make 10 mothers proud, I still ended up with double-lung pneumonia — courtesy of the pesky virus. I missed weeks of work and my kids ate cereal or canned soup three meals a day for so many days they forgot what purpose forks serve. (I found my toddler using one to curl her hair à la Ariel.) It was misery.

That didn't need to happen, says Kristine Arthur, M.D., an internist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "Everyone who thinks they may have the flu should see their doctor immediately," she explains. "If you're healthy with no underlying problems and have typical flu symptoms, you're actually the perfect candidate for Tamiflu."

It turns out I'm not the only person who mistakenly thinks antiviral medications are mostly for the very young and very old, and that the rest of us should just suck it up. Not so, Arthur says. "Not only can Tamiflu shorten the duration of the flu by one to two days, but it can blunt some of the symptoms and prevent complications like bronchitis and pneumonia."

Pneumonia, you say? Oh.

The key to effective antiviral treatment is speed. The drugs need to be started within 48 hours of when people first start showing symptoms to have maximum effect, which is why Arthur says it's so important to see your doctor and get a flu test at the first sign of sickness. "If you are a healthy adult and outside of the 48-hour window, your doctor likely won't give you the medication at that point. If you are in one of the high-risk categories, they might still do it, but the benefit won't be as great."

Arthur explains that Tamiflu can be safely used by everyone from infants to the elderly (including stubborn moms who think they can handle everything), but it's particularly important for people who are at high risk for complications due to an underlying condition like heart disease, asthma, an immune disorder or diabetes. Other high-risk patients are those over 65 years old, under 2 years old or are pregnant.

In addition, you can take Tamiflu in some cases to prevent getting the flu. Arthur says that if someone living in the same house as you has gotten a positive flu test result, doctors may put the rest of the household on a half dose of an antiviral to prevent it from spreading, especially if you live with someone who is in a high-risk category.

However, Tamiflu is not a miracle pill, Arthur cautions. Not only is it not a cure for the flu, but it also does have some side effects that, ironically, can mirror flu symptoms. "Common complaints are headache, nausea, rashes and dizziness, and rarely we see incidents of mental confusion. But, it's hard to say if it's really a reaction to the medicine or to the virus," she says, emphasizing that every medicine has its drawbacks and you should make an informed assessment as to whether the benefits are worth the risks. She adds that this year, Tamiflu and the other two main antivirals — Relenza and Rapizab — seem to be effective on all the circulating flu strains.

So this year, if you do come down with a sudden fever, body aches, headache and sore throat — note when exactly your symptoms started and get to a doctor as soon as possible for a flu test.

More on flu season

Important: New flu guidelines for moms this season
The flu shot may not work this season — what you need to know
How the flu shot can help prevent a heart attack

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